During a recent visit to Guatemala on March 2, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised the achievements made by the UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG). He also urged Honduran and Salvadoran leaders to follow the Guatemalan example by replicating the CICIG model in their own countries or to consider the creation of a regional CICIG.
However, Central American leaders do not share Biden’s enthusiastic support for CICIG, particularly Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, who refuses to renew its mandate for the third time. Civil society groups that regard CICIG as the last remaining bulwark of judicial independence in Guatemala say this does not bode well for the country’s fight against organized crime and corruption.
During their recent meeting, Biden urged President Pérez Molina to renew CICIG’s mandate—which expires on September 3, absent another extension—and stressed that Central American leaders must cooperate with efforts to reduce levels of impunity in the region as a condition for receiving a $1 billion aid package from the U.S.
“The work of organizations like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala are so important,” Biden wrote on his official Twitter account.
CICIG was created in 2006 to investigate organized crime and its connections to state officials. On February 25, its director, Ivan Velásquez, presented a report on the commission’s eight years in Guatemala to the executive commission in charge of evaluating CICIG’s work. The report highlighted how the investigations CICIG had led helped to dismantle criminal structures as well as contributed to legislative changes that have improved Guatemalan institutions’ capacity to prosecute organized crime.
Foreign donors have expressed a willingness to continue funding CICIG, and civil society organizations, as well as a number of opposition parties including Compromiso, Renovación y Órden (Commitment, Renewal and Order—CREO), Encuentro por Guatemala (Encounter for Guatemala—EG), TODOS, Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Liberty—LIDER), and Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope—UNE), have expressed support for CICIG’s continuation.
“CICIG’s investigations have demonstrated that the Guatemalan justice system can be made to work even against those once deemed untouchable. It has brought to trial a former president, a minister of interior, and many other high-profile individuals with ties to criminal networks […] The extension of the commission’s mandate would demonstrate that Guatemala is serious about rooting out corruption and combating the infiltration of criminal networks in state agencies”, reads a statement issued by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Even former president Alfonso Portillo, who returned to Guatemala on February 25 after spending nine months in a U.S. prison for money laundering charges, has spoken out in support of CICIG. His recent statements are surprising, given that CICIG played an instrumental role in Portillo’s unsuccessful prosecution for corruption charges in a Guatemalan court in 2011.
Upon his arrival, during a press conference held in La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City, Portillo criticized former CICIG director Carlos Castresana, who was responsible for his prosecution, but spoke favorably of CICIG’s performance under Velásquez’s administration.
“Based solely on my case, I would say it (CICIG) is useless, but from what I’ve heard we now have a serious commissioner, not a clown. I think there are some aspects that need to be reformed, but we have to accept that it’s done some good work. It’s possible to obtain tangible results”, said Portillo.
However, President Pérez Molina has had a very tense relationship with CICIG since the trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013, and has not requested the UN to renew CICIG’s mandate. After the trial was suspended due to a legal technicality, CICIG made a statement regarding the need to move forward with the trial and guarantee judicial independence, which irked the current administration.
Last September, Pérez Molina made it clear that CICIG’s mandate would not be renewed. “We agreed that this would be the last extension. For now, we do not contemplate an extension of CICIG’s mandate”, he said.
The message was reiterated during Biden’s visit, and Pérez Molina hinted that the U.S. government was impinging on Guatemalan sovereignty by conditioning aid on another extension of CICIG’s mandate.
“One thing is assuming shared responsibilities and another is accepting impositions. I’m sure that none of the three countries (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) will accept an imposition. CICIG was not imposed on the Guatemalan government, its creation was requested by the Alfonso Portillo administration,” said Pérez Molina during Biden’s visit.
Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose absence was noted by the media during Biden’s visit, told the local press on February 23 that “it was time for the country to walk on its own” and that it was necessary to “stop holding CICIG’s hand and allow national institutions to take on the fight against impunity.”
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández doesn’t appear eager to heed Biden’s advice about replicating the CICIG model in his country, either. “If we depend on other countries, when are we going to solve our own problems?” he said.
The Hernández administration has pledged an overhaul of the country’s national police this year, as the institution has been plagued by allegations of widespread corruption and human rights violations.